Looking back at Conference decisions on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion
By The Revd Dr Jonathan Hustler, Secretary of the Conference
20 August 2020
More than one person has said to me that ‘it seems like this is a watershed moment’ over the last few weeks, and all of them were talking about the Conference’s decisions on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI). I have held those comments alongside some others which have reminded us where we have failed to live up to the expectations that we set ourselves and I find myself asking, is something different this time? It is worth looking back at some of the things that happened at the Conference and the context in which the Conference met.
Black Lives Matter
The Council report to the Conference detailed the outline of the EDI (‘The Inclusive Church’) strategy. This defines the Church as one in which all people can expect to be welcomed into a place of safety, where we are disciplined in rejecting any form of discrimination and in calling to account those responsible, in which diversity is celebrated as one of God’s gifts to us and not seen as an issue to be accommodated, and where our diversity is visible in our leadership and our selection processes ensure that. It was always the intention of the Conference to debate those themes, but the context in which we met was shaped by the tragic death of George Floyd and the global response to it. As I write, sportsmen and women still ‘take a knee’ before their matches begin or resume and there remains a sense that for society as a whole this is a watershed moment.
For Christians (myself included) in the white majority this watershed moment is a sobering experience. We have to confess that the Church has not been the welcoming or just community that it could and should have been, not because of any lack of intent but simply because we have not been able to see how much our structures continue to reflect the predilections of the white majority. The journey on which we are now embarked will not be easy and it will be painful to admit our own failings. Amongst the many pieces of work that are being undertaken is some research into the legacy of slavery; in spite of John Wesley’s unambiguous opposition to the slave trade, there may well have been Methodists who profited from it. It can be easy to judge those in the past, but we are learning how deeply some attitudes have been engrained in us and have blinded us to injustice: the Conference’s decision to expand the groups who are expected to undertake unconscious bias training is to be welcomed.
Jewish Lives Matter
In indicating its support for the Black Lives Matter movement, the Conference was asked to be clear that it was not identifying itself with any party that carried that name. We met in the same week as one part of the movement had promoted some extremely unsavoury anti-Semitic views. Anti-Semitism is once again on the rise in Britain; each of the last four years has seen an increase in the number of reported anti-Semitic incidents. As the Conference said in 2018, Methodists absolutely condemn anti-Semitism as evil and wrong. We have defined anti-Semitism as ‘Any belief, policy or action that discriminates against or incites hatred towards Jewish people, either by race or religion, or caricatures Jewish people and culture. This can include denying the right of Israel to exist, or judging it by standards not applied to other nations.’
Whilst unequivocally affirming the right of Israel to exist, the Methodist Church has spoken out about some of the policies of that country’s government. We do so with care, ensuring that the same standards of compliance with international law are applied to Israel as to any other state. Tragically, some other groups have not been so careful and beneath criticism of the Israeli government we hear some sinister echoes of tropes designed to breed hostility to Jewish people. The Conference in 2018 was reminded that it had spoken out against anti-Semitism 75 years before; during the Second World War, a famous poster invited people to remember that ‘Careless talk costs lives’. That has sometimes been the case in relation to our language about the Jewish people and if we are not very careful could still be so.
LGBT Lives Matter
Our EDI work is far broader than matters of race and religion. A Notice of Motion to the Conference helpfully reminded us of commitments that had already been to ensure that people who are intersex of transgender are included in the life of the Church. That work is now to be integrated with the Inclusive Church strategy.
One of the decisions that the Conference made was to strengthen the Church’s position in relation to the fourth Presidency of Churches Together in England and to encourage CTE to allow the Fourth President to exercise her office. Currently, the person elected by the Fourth Presidency Group of CTE (the Church of Scotland, the Lutheran Church and the Society of Friends) has been asked not to take her seat because she is married to a person of the same sex. The Methodist Church has been clear that no one is debarred from any office with us on the grounds of their being in a same-sex marriage; whilst we recognize that there are different opinions on these issues, we cannot be an Inclusive Church if we restrict the contributions of some people. It was an important moment when we remembered that valuing our ecumenical commitments includes standing up for such points of principle, and I reflected with some shame how easy it is to condone discrimination by not taking a stance.
The Lives of those in care matter
Sometimes, the discrimination that has been condoned has been in relation to age or disability. I wonder if the word Methodist has appeared most in national news of late as part of the name of MHA (Methodist Homes). Sam Monaghan, the Chief Executive, has been prominent during the COVID-19 crisis in highlighting the difficulties that care homes have had. The impact on MHA has been considerable and it will take some time for the organization to recover its occupancy and income levels; even now testing shows how important it is that the homes remain vigilant. Sam’s message has not simply been about practical problems; he has stressed the value of the lives of those in MHA’s care; the elderly need to be protected.
Last month, the journalist Ian Birrell was awarded the Orwell Prize for Exposing Britain’s Social Evils. Birrell has been notable in his campaigning work on behalf of, amongst others, people with disabilities. As he pointed out, those with disabilities have suffered disproportionately during the pandemic and yet their situation has been underreported. It is a privilege to write a newspaper column and Birrell has used that to shine a light on areas that are often hidden from view. Our EDI work is doing that also – bringing to light the areas of the Church’s life where we have acted unjustly, failed to listen, and tolerated inequality. No longer, I pray, no longer. The Conference debate felt as though it might just be the watershed moment when we have said that the life of every person matters and meant it.